The cosy atmosphere, the specially curated set, the intimate venue; it’s one of those unforgettable experiences that go beyond just a gig. The best bit was this was a show open to anyone. It was one of the many gigs put on by Sofar Sounds, an organisation dedicated to putting on secret concerts in unusual venues. The company started off in London in 2009 but was such a success that it soon spread all over the world.
It began after Rafe Offer went to a Friendly Fires gig with his mates Rocky Start and Dave J Alexander. ‘We were just frustrated – there were so many distractions. The crowd was talking over the performance, the sound system wasn’t great and people were constantly on their phones. We noticed this was becoming more and more common to see at concerts and we felt like live events could – and should – be a better experience.’
The trio were so upset by what they saw that they decided to set up Sofar Sounds to return the gig-going experience back to basics – just the band and the audience listening quietly. At first, they were just informal affairs that took place in their own living rooms with their friends but soon the concept started to spread through word-of-mouth. They expanded to Paris, New York and Los Angeles. The company now puts on around 500 gigs every month in over 350 cities around the globe.
‘Our first show was really casual. My friends and I gathered about eight people into a living room in London. One of them, Dave Alexander (a musician at the time), played us some songs on his guitar. We had some drinks, sat on the floor and just listened. I remember it was so quiet, you could hear the grandfather clock ticking in the background.’
A Sofar Sounds gig usually features three acts playing four songs each. Every line-up is specially curated to give audiences a diverse show. Fans can apply for tickets online or via the app.
It’s not just the audience that benefits but the artist as well. Acts that have played Sofar Sounds include Ed Sheeran, Yeah Yeah Yeah’s frontwoman Karen O, Bastille, Hozier and James Bay. Aspiring singers can apply through their official website for the chance to play one of the shows.
‘Playing a Sofar is a completely different experience for an artist than playing a typical concert,’ Rafe says. ‘It’s up close and intimate – there’s usually no more than 100 people in a room – and our audiences are attentive and eager to hear the music. Artists who sell out large venues often tell us that playing a Sofar makes them more nervous than a larger gig. They can’t hide anything in the intimate Sofar environment!’
Those aren’t the only big stars they’ve attracted. Celebrities can often be found in the audience too. One of their most famous music fans was a certain Robert Pattinson at the height of Twilight mania. The actor is also an aspiring musician and attended one of the shows to see his friend, Marcus Foster, play.
Rafe explains: ‘We’ve had a lot of different celebrities cross our paths over the years, but early on Robert Pattinson was a surprise – even for us – performer. That night one of our acts, Marcus Foster, brought his friend with him. He said to me, “This is my buddy Rob. Do you think he can play a few songs later?” Of course no one recognized him outside of context. We have a full line-up when the night starts and our artists go through extensive review, so we said no at first.
‘The night goes on, and Rob was sitting in the back, quite introverted…or a bit nervous about playing, maybe? At the end of the show, Marcus asked me again if Rob could play and I said, “Sure thing, one song.” Rob gets up to the front of the living room, fiddles with his guitar and asks us to stop filming. We didn’t understand. Why was this random guy asking us not to film? He was nervous, and it took him about a minute to hit his stride in the song. But after that, he settled down and hit us with this lovely gravelly voice and really got into it.’
But it’s not just the crowd and the artists that make a Sofar Sounds gig special – it’s the incredible array of venues they use to host their gigs. These include the top of the Holmenkollen Ski Jump in Oslo, a moving tram in Poland, a lakefront sauna in Sweden and the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago.
Rafe says: ‘We pride ourselves on showcasing amazing talent in non-traditional venues. Discovering a new neighbourhood or cool local spot is also a huge part of Sofar’s appeal. That being said, we’ve hosted in some pretty unique spaces.’
He’s eager to add that Sofar Sounds doesn’t view itself as competition to standard gigs but instead as a supplement for music lovers.
‘The Sofar teams all love going to concerts at local venues around the world and supporting artists at traditional gigs. But we also think there’s a demand for the closer connection, intimate experience and sense of discovery that a Sofar offers that more traditional stadium or bigger venue shows can’t.’
For more information about Sofar Sounds and their upcoming gigs around the world, visit their website here.